How to stop the slide from info-storms to post-factual democracy
Information is in no short supply these days. Indeed, as comedian Joey Novick has pointedly remarked: “The information in the world doubles every day. What they don’t tell us is that our wisdom is cut in half at the same time.”
In the days of old, information depletion among proselytes was a way to gain power and rule. Today, given the abundance of available information, drowning users, citizens and voters with (dis)information via info-storms may likewise be a way to get your way–socially, economically, politically.
The World Economic Forum recently declared misinformation and digital wildfires as some of the great challenges of our time: “The global risk of massive digital misinformation sits at the centre of a constellation of technological and geopolitical risks ranging from terrorism to cyber attacks and the failure of global governance.”
Similarly, “The Munich Security Report 2017: Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?” recently chimed in with a disconcerting motto to characterise the state of affairs in post-factual times, with “(Dis)Information: Fake It, Leak It, Spread it.”
Information is central to deliberation, decision and action. For information to inform decisions, people must pay attention to it. Attention is a scarce, extremely valuable resource, and a prime asset online. Information consumption generates attention, as manifested in online traffic.
Online traffic may generate money or political power, or ideological influence. The natural consequence of this is speculation on what sort of political stories potentially may enjoy high social transmission. But, whatever is viral is not necessarily true and whatever is true is not necessarily viral–so truth may just be the first victim of high circulation stories. Loss of truth is the first step towards post-factual democracy.
The overarching fear for western democracies is to end up in post-factual states. A democracy is in a post-factual state when opportune political narratives replace facts and evidence as the basis for political debate, opinion formation and policymaking.
Post-factuality paves the way of–and is itself fuelled by–a political strategy. The strategy is populism. Populism may be understood as a political strategy for partisan mobilisation based on “us versus them” narratives of distrust and exclusion, which cherry pick the facts and issues.
Narratives may in turn be used as vehicles for political messages of exclusion, distrust and tribalism. In fact, narratives may even be “weaponised”. As Brad Allenby and Joel Garreau point out:
"Weaponised narratives seek to undermine an opponent’s civilization, identity and willpower by generating complexity, confusion, and political and social schisms. It can be used tactically, as part of explicit military or geopolitical conflict; or strategically, as a way to reduce, neutralise and defeat a civilization, state, or organisation. Done well, it limits or even removes any need for armed force to achieve political and military aims."
Such strategies include fostering polarisation, echo-chambers, unreflective descent, extreme partisanship, pluralistic ignorance, bystander apathy, cascading effects, spirals of silence or anger, indignation, fear, bias, cognitive dissonance. All of these can potentially mobilise crowds or swing voters one way or the other, depending on how the wind blows.
Narratives are borne by information. The information may be truthful, but it may also be framed, or doctored, or even contain “alternative facts”, thus turning the narrative into a carrier–or weapon–of disinformation. For disinformation to succeed it must not be too easily spotted. Issuing a complete falsehood may not make for a winning strategy if the fake news is too easily exposed as fake. But rolling out a news story based on a mixture of corroborative facts and non-corroborated material can win over minds, particularly if everything else, according to you, turns out to be "fake news".
So often enough, partisan media outlets and other propaganda machines mix truth and falsity in this way, leaving the decision-maker with some facts for identification, confirmation and objective robustness, while bias, partisanship and sheer power of persuasion will take care of the rest. Uncertainty becomes certainty, and will eventually lead to a coherent, sometimes even conspiratorial, world view that is consistent with one’s prior (probably polarised) political inclination. And on it goes. That’s the story of post-factual democracy.
The real info
Can anything be done about it? Simply telling users, media outlets and political agents that they must not produce fake news would be patronising and about as effective as telling teenagers not to drink beer. Even if they don't like getting drunk themselves, they may just wrongfully believe that their peers are much more positively inclined towards binging than they are individually. Thus a group may collectively end up doing what each individual privately rejects. This phenomenon is referred to as "pluralistic ignorance" in social psychology.
It was recently shown that the same pattern is prevalent when it comes to attitudes towards cyberbullying among teenagers. Privately, teenagers abhor it, but they incorrectly believe that most of their classmates have much more positive attitudes towards cyberbullying. It is an erroneous comparison, which can lead to unfortunate results. Norm-based intervention strategies, in which teenagers are informed about the structure and dynamics of pluralistic ignorance, have proven to be more effective and preventive.
The same should go for fake news and spreading misinformation. Information could be the antidote to misinformation: explaining to the public the nuts and bolts of misinformation, its structure and dynamics, could make a difference. Informing people about the nature and dynamics of misinformation may not prevent it, but it could help stop the rot from spreading too far. It will take time, but with a co-ordinated global effort, including organisations such as the OECD, we can drive fake news back, and the divisions and hate that it generates.
References and further reading
Hendricks, V. F. & Vestergaard, M. (2017), ”VERLORENE WIRKLICHKEIT? An der Schwelle zur postfaktischen Demokratie”, Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 13/ 2017: 4-10
Munich Security Conference 2017: Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order, www.securityconference.de/en/discussion/munich-security-report/munich-security-report-2017/, verified 23 March
Vincent F Hendricks
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